It’s all getting very exciting at this stage. Kenneth Biller’s ‘Shattered’ is very much the least stand-alone episode of Smallville to date, at least outside of its season premieres and finales, although this did air as the pre-Christmas break episode of 2003.
Some audience members who want nothing but a pure adaptation of the comics might find a lot of what Smallville does here a form of heresy; basically turning Lex’s relationship with his father into an increasingly twisted soap opera, with dead siblings, murdered grandparents and so much lying, but as a piece of television, this is tremendously exciting stuff. It does exactly what you want great genre television to do: takes its characters, puts them into increasingly emotionally draining blenders, breaks the series apart for a cliffhanger ending, and leaves you wondering how it will put itself back together for the next episode.
Make no mistake, Smallville will most likely get back to a form of normality, but it’s hard not to get swept along by the paranoid energy of this whole episode. We even get the obligatory “maybe we should stay away from each other” moment between Lana and Clark, although here it does hold some dramatic weight because Lana was seriously injured as a result of Clark’s methods in trying to protect Lex.
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As great as it is, a series like Smallville does get by on relying on certain tropes and aspects of its characters and stories. Inevitably it will have to change course completely to get the characters into the places that we know that they have to slot into eventually (although it says a lot about how good the series is at this stage that some sort of subversion isn’t off the cards), but given that this is in the middle of a string of episodes that’s going to town with Lex, Lionel and the latter’s repeated attempts to make everyone think he’s crazy, the episode has a gleeful sense of seeing what it might be like to break everything apart just for a while to see how the series ticks. After all, the episode is appropriately called ‘Shattered’.
Credit where credit is due to Michael Rosenbaum here. Once again he shows himself to be the MVP of the series, and one of the all-time great portrayers of Lex Luthor because of the layers of complexities that he brings to the character. Not being the villain of the story yet means that we are allowed to still like him, but that the series inevitably has to bring him to a point where he becomes the antagonist once again reiterates the spectre of tragedy that hangs over his performance. It almost feels as if at times he and the writers are doing too good a job of making you love him, and here there is much sympathy to be had as we watch him fall into the pits of psychosis and paranoia.
It also goes to town a little with what is once again shaping up to be the series’ main themes, and which sees Smallville getting to grips with one of the biggest themes from the Superman lore: fathers and sons. So many story arcs for superheroes and villains stem from their parents, whether it be Bruce Wayne losing his, Diana Prince having to turn away from her mother and Thermyscara, or Clark Kent being raised on a farm, but then having to deal not only with the wisdom extolled by his foster father but his biological one too, albeit in spectral form.
Of all the paternal figures on Smallville, Jonathan Kent is perhaps the only one who is shown to be truly decent; Jor-El has been subverted, magnificently it must be said, into a somewhat more antagonistic persona, capable more of emotional damage than the wisdom displayed by Marlon Brando and Russell Crowe; while the villainous manipulations of Lex have been switched to his own father here who would rather commit his son to a psychiatric ward and a possible onslaught of electroshock therapy to keep his son in check.
It’s brilliantly dark stuff and is held together by not only Biller’s writing and direction, but Michael Rosenbaum’s performance. It’s a nervy, energetic and yet exhausting piece of work that the actor commits to with full gusto. Of all the Lex Luthors that have been on-screen, there is perhaps none that have been given the psychological make-up with which Rosenbaum gets to play with here. Gene Hackman, as wonderful as he was in the role, was very much fashioned into a typical scheming supervillain, as was the case with John Shea’s version in Lois and Clark.
Up to this point, I don’t think any live-action version of Lex got the chance to play the role in this kind of way and it’s honestly a big part of what makes Smallville work so well at this stage. Sure, it’s a WB/CW version of the narrative that can’t help but do a montage at the end set to Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’, but it works so entertainingly well that I can’t imagine what it must have been like for audiences at the time knowing that they would have to wait several weeks to see what would happen next. I would have been livid.